Charli XCX is a pop star’s pop star. Over the course of her decade-long career she has retained an edge and mystique that often eludes artists who break the mainstream in the social media age. About her there is not a whiff of Notes-app sincerity, of no make-up selfies, of performative relatability. She is fierce, grand, elusive, with inch-long acrylics and latex leotards. She told Rolling Stone UK last month that “the iconicness has to stay at such a high level that sometimes you can really get exhausted just from being so, so iconic,” revealing with a wink that she is fully aware of the context of her own construction. “I want it all, even if it’s fake,” she sang on “Backseat”, the opening track of her 2017 mixtape Pop 2. Five years later, it’s clear she got it – and that any fakeness is deliberate.
XCX’s postmodern sensibility naturally seeps into her music as well as her pop-star brand, if the two can be separated. Her songs are cool, shiny, hard, with watertight production and fizzing melodies, so perfectly rendered that they represent pop’s platonic ideal, existing as much in theory as in practice. She has a macrocosmic interest in her art – a desire to manipulate the whole, to shake pop like a snow globe. Crash, her new album released 18 March, is characteristically immaculate, an exhibition of craft as much as an exploration of her main themes, love and partying. So why does it still feel somehow avant-garde?
As in much of XCX’s earlier work, Crash plays with the genre-pushing methods of EDM. Distancing vocal manipulation, such as the Imogen Heap-style processed harmonies on closing track “Twice” and the heavy vocoder on “New Shapes”, a collaboration with Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek, ensure XCX remains aloof. Her deep electronic textures, with squealing synths and slinky midi strings, speak to the futurism that has long defined her work, and has at times sidelined her in an industry jostling to create vibey Spotify hits. Charli herself sang that she was “so 2020” in 2019, and critics have often put her in the slightly tenuous category of “future pop”, a label that captures something of her hyper-electronic timbre, but mainly conveys the general sense that she’s “not like the other girls”.
XCX has never been afraid to innovate, yet the undulating beats of Crash show that she is, at heart, a purist. Caffeinated refrains (“I’m gonna make you mine,” she breathes over and over on “Baby”) and spacey, heart-pounding basslines shape the record; there are less of the squelching, ear-splitting floorfillers that made up the cult favourite 2016 EP Vroom Vroom (on which, and later in her career, she collaborated with the Scottish producer Sophie, who pioneered the head-rush, sour-sweets electronic sound that we now know as hyperpop). Crash also samples heavily from classic dance tracks, bending them to her will. Lead single “Beg For You”, which features Rina Sawayama, is based on September’s “Cry For You” (itself taken from Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”) and combines Europop riffs and a garage beat to create a soaring, euphoric sadbanger. “Used to Know Me” samples from “Show Me Love” to create a timeless-sounding Ibiza track and a hedonism that is synthetic and nihilistic.
To the extent that Charli XCX appears complex, she also has a built-in obstinacy. Her music is hard-edged, defiant of not only genre but any kind of raw emotional penetration, creating instead a contained, Truman Show world for us to dance in and, should we so wish, tap on the solid surface of its sky. But her mean girl persona is only part of her craft – necessary, perhaps, to maintain the iconicness. XCX is reflective, too, with a softer side. Outside its veteran dance tracks, Crash is not music for a rave. Instead, it is music for before or after it: fantasies of the dancefloor, memories of lovers; both nostalgia for and anticipation of euphoria. On this record XCX reveals that, for all her sci-fi transcendence, she is not an elusive time-traveller. She is the most precise, contemporary star we have, looking forward, then back, then forward again. What can we do but follow her gaze?